On Tuesday, President Trump is expected to begin the process of dismantling Obama’s environmental legacy, including his signature climate action policy, the Clean Power Plan. According to Reuters, Trump will sign an executive order compelling the Environmental Protection Agency to review and rewrite the plan, which calls on states to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, with an overall goal of shaving 32 percent off the power sector’s greenhouse gas footprint by 2030. As Trump and EPA head Scott Pruitt see it, regulations like this need to be dismantled to end the EPA’s “job killing war on coal.” Other experts say a roll back of the CPP is in the fossil fuel industry’s best interest, but can’t revitalize Big Coal.
It’s important to recognize that Trump can’t unilaterally sweep away the CPP with a single executive order. All he can do is give the EPA the green light to review and rewrite the plan under Pruitt. (As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt sued to block implementation of the CPP, and later, he dismissed calls from Democrats to recuse himself from the rewriting process.) Any real changes to the CPP will require years of public hearings and, undoubtedly, lawsuits from environmental agencies arguing that a coal-friendlier version of the policy doesn’t go far enough in protecting us from climate pollution. In the meantime, however, Pruitt can send the message to the fossil fuel industry that the EPA, under his leadership, will be lax in enforcing regulations. The message to the rest of the world is that the America doesn’t give a shit about tackling climate change.
“I think that message has already been sent,” Janet McCabe, the former head of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, and one of the architects of the Clean Power Plan, told Gizmodo.
When crafting the CPP, McCabe told Gizmodo, the EPA’s plan was to allow states to set emissions targets in line with a nationwide energy transition away from coal, and towards natural gas and green energy. Coal usage has been dropping for decades as the US invests in fracking and green energy, with solar in particular growing in prominence as prices have fallen. The regulatory impact of the CPP adds to the market forces crippling coal, but it isn’t the root cause of coal’s demise.
This makes it difficult to quantify what exactly is being caused by the CPP in terms of jobs losses, versus what’s happening naturally. Or as McCabe put it, “How do you tease out the effects of the Clean Power Plan in comparison to how the market is going anyway?”
The upside of accelerating the transition away from coal, McCabe said, was the opportunities afforded to the green energy sector, which has taken off explosively in recent years, both in the United States and internationally. Green energy is expected to continue to grow as new technology makes solar panels and wind turbines more cost-effective, and as production of these technologies reaches economies of scale. Last year, renewable energy accounted for more than half of all new power-generating capacity worldwide, with roughly half a million solar panels installed around the planet each day. A person interested in bringing back American jobs might call such an industry a good investment.
“When you look at the impacts of regulation, you look not just at job losses but also potential job gains,” McCabe said.
Jobs aside, the CPP is essential to upholding our commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, an agreement between 141 countries to zero out carbon emissions this century in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and prevent some of the more catastrophic impacts scientists are predicting. Dismantling the CPP essentially walks back our commitment not just to Paris specifically, but to international climate action. Pruitt called the agreement a “bad deal” but there’s no official word on whether the US will try to withdraw, a process that would take several years.
Tellingly, several of the states that sued to block the Clean Power Plan’s implementation—arguing that the rules were too stringent—are nonetheless still meeting their emissions reduction goals, because they’ve increased their reliance on natural gas and green energy. Even if the CPP is weakened, the market forces driving that energy transition will still exist. Gas will still be cheaper and cleaner than coal. Green energy will still, eventually, be cheaper and cleaner than coal. And a lot of coal miners will still be out of a job.